Highways destroyed Black neighborhoods like mine. Can we undo the damage now?

Tremé was a place of massive oaks, thriving shops and joyous community. The Claiborne Expressway erased all that.

North Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, in the shadow of the expressway. (Akasha Rabut/for The Washington Post)

A favorite errand of mine when I was a child was to go to Joe Dave’s meat market. Joe Dave had one hand full of fingers. The other was full of nubs. He’d lost his fingers to either a cleaver or a bone saw, I’ve forgotten which one. I just remember thinking that whatever he did must have hurt. I would sit at his long butcher-block counter and watch intently as he steadied the meat with his nubby hand and sliced very carefully with the other. The only thing I didn’t like about Joe Dave’s was the stench of raw meat. I can still smell that smell every time I think of his market. It was a small price to pay to watch a master at work, warmed by the sunlight pouring through his North Claiborne Avenue storefront.

There were many masters on North Claiborne, and Black New Orleanians were the beneficiaries of their talents. There were doctors, lawyers, retailers, insurance agents, teachers, musicians, restaurateurs and other small-business owners. The avenue stretched across the Tremé and 7th Ward neighborhoods, and in the Jim Crow era, it served as the social and financial center of the Black community.

The government tore up the avenue nearly 60 years ago, burying the heart of Tremé and the 7th Ward so the Claiborne Expressway, part of Interstate 10’s transcontinental span, could run through the city. New Orleans wasn’t alone. The same kind of thing happened across the country; Black communities like those in St. Paul, Minn., Orlando, Detroit, Richmond, Baltimore, Oakland, Calif., and Syracuse, N.Y., were leveled or hollowed out to make way for federal highway building. The Biden administration hopes to use the massive infrastructure bill now working its way through Congress to help remedy the harm done by these hideous scars, to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments,” in President Biden’s words. It’s not clear how much of the trillion dollars that lawmakers are contemplating will actually make it to places like North Claiborne. But those places aren’t just abstract line items in a budget resolution to people like me; they’re lived realities — vivid examples of how racist planning destroyed communities of color in America.

Four generations of my family have lived in my house in Tremé, a block and a half from the elevated expressway that bulldozed its way into my childhood. I was too young to recall much of the old North Claiborne that the elders pined for, but like Joe Dave’s, Mr. LaBranche’s drugstore, its floor a black-and-white sea of small octagonal tiles, lingers in my mind. It smelled like candy, and it was, like the butcher shop, a place of endless fascination for me. I would gleefully walk up and down the aisles of both stores, studying everything they had to offer but restricted mostly to my mother’s list. Thinking of the pharmacy evokes its sugary aroma and reminds me of the happy place that Claiborne used to be. Children played football and learned to ride bikes on its 100-foot-wide median, or the neutral ground, as we call it here. The neutral ground was lined with oak trees, a beautiful canopy that ran down the center of the avenue. Each year, Black New Orleanians celebrated Mardi Gras among the oaks. Black Mardi Gras was and still is a tradition central to North Claiborne Avenue.

I was a schoolgirl when the bulldozers came. It was the day after Mardi Gras — Ash Wednesday 1966. They wrecked the avenue on one of the most solemn days of the year. Some oaks were transplanted to White lakefront neighborhoods; others were just cut down. Black leaders tried to fight the government as it made way for the freeway, but they didn’t have the political clout. The neighborhoods in the North Claiborne corridor were being sacrificed to help fulfill President Dwight Eisenhower’s vision of a vast interstate highway system crisscrossing the country.

My first real memory of the beginning of Claiborne’s decline was the loss of LaBranche’s Drugs; it was like a knife in the heart. Slowly but surely, shops shuttered or moved away, and the avenue became a strip of funeral homes and bars. Under the suppression of an urban highway, even those businesses mostly didn’t survive. Claiborne lost its vibrancy and became a dirty place plagued with crime and the constant drone of buzzing engines and rolling tires — noise pollution that we still live with. The beautifully filtered light from the stand of live oaks was replaced by a cold gray that blankets the environment under the massive concrete viaduct we simply call the “bridge” — or the Monster.

Life isn’t sacred when you live next to urban highways. These intruders harbor unsavory activities, create unhealthy conditions and even play a role in a rapidly changing climate. I can look down from my second-story porch early in the morning and see a prostitute engaged in the act in the passenger seat of a truck parked below. Our community’s children have to share the street with scantily clad sex workers while walking to school; they navigate fields of needles that litter sidewalks hidden by the highway’s exit ramps. Persistent exposure to noise, heat and pollution contributes to lifelong ailments. The Claiborne Expressway worsens the climate impact of the city’s heat island, as hot vehicles raise the temperature of the surrounding areas, and hot, polluted storm water is shed into the drainage system, making its way into Lake Pontchartrain and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. What’s more, the Monster is old: Its concrete is eroding, and its steel reinforcement shows — a condition highly visible over a playground nestled under the massive, polluting structure. It’s easy to see why an urban highway is a menace.

The Biden administration and many lawmakers have recognized the damage that urban highways have done and are working to give communities opportunities to remove them and repair neighborhoods upended and divided by racist planning. The $1 billion earmarked for reconnecting communities in the infrastructure bill that passed in the Senate on Tuesday — down from the $20 billion Biden had suggested in his initial plan — won’t go far. Nearly 10 years ago, the price of removing 1.4 miles of the expressway was estimated at more than half a billion dollars. Needless to say, many other aged-out urban highways are in need of a remedy, too. Nearly three dozen projects have been proposed in almost 30 cities. Syracuse, for example, is considering how to demolish its crumbling I-81 viaduct and replace it with a street-level grid. Syracuse’s 15th Ward, home to nearly all of the city’s working-class Black population, was razed to build the highway; some residents ended up living in its shadow and absorbing most of its pollution. Similarly, Oakland is considering a multi-way boulevard to replace I-980, which helped sever West Oakland’s Black residents from the economic revival happening in Uptown Oakland and left them in a food desert, where they suffer from high rates of asthma.

As for New Orleans, many don’t realize that the expressway doesn’t have a lot of time left. Its projected life span has expired, and it’s falling apart. Some community members fear that gentrification will accelerate if the expressway is removed; others think a version of Manhattan’s High Line, a park that was created on top of abandoned rail infrastructure, would keep gentrifiers out. Given these competing concerns, we must work to ensure that no harm is done to the people whom the infrastructure bill’s program is meant to help when these highways come down. Anti-displacement guardrails must be put in place. This is imperative if the program is to achieve its goal of mending Black and Brown communities.

In its heyday, Claiborne Avenue was a destination for bars and clubs. Today, there are fewer of them, and sidewalk gatherings around the dimly lit remaining places are mostly confined to Sunday evenings. Funeral parlors, lit up like Christmas trees along the avenue, are nearly extinct, too. Even the business of death could not overcome the adverse impacts of the Monster. One of the last vestiges of Claiborne’s mortuary row was my cousin’s funeral home. That was where my greatest childhood fear — having to attend a wake and sit in the presence of a corpse while eating finger sandwiches and watching the adults sip coffee — was conquered when my beloved grandmother died. I can still feel the pounding of my heart as we rode along North Claiborne Avenue and turned into the parking lot; the time had come for me to face my fear of death and the sadness of sitting with my grandmother one last time. My cousin’s mortuary is gone as well.

In New Orleans, the moroseness of death is lifted by the joy of the second line. The sound of the drums and the cry of the cornets serve as a call to leave the house, escort the deceased to the cemetery and dance with abandon after the remains have been laid to rest. Traditional second lines, held primarily in the Claiborne corridor, have now expanded into regular Sunday parades that celebrate the city’s social aid and pleasure clubs. These celebrations are evidence of how strong cultural traditions survive even when an urban highway has caused so much harm.

I do not understand why we can’t look at these infrastructure relics the way we look at monuments to white supremacy, such as statues of Confederate heroes and obelisks apotheosizing the Lost Cause. The statues are hurtful reminders of the times when Black people and Native Americans were seen as commodities or nuisances that needed removal. But urban highways are more than a reminder; they continuously inflict economic, social and environmental pain on neighborhoods like mine. Like other monuments to racism, they must be removed. The nation has a chance to support the rebuilding of disenfranchised and fractured communities and make them whole. It won’t be easy, but I hope we will seize the moment.